View Full Version : The American rifle

10-16-08, 03:38 PM
The American rifle
Sons of a gun

Oct 16th 2008
From The Economist print edition

THE belief that its riflemen are the world’s best marksmen runs through America’s military history. It dates back at least to the American War of Independence (1775-83) when sharpshooters born and bred on the frontier killed a disproportionate number of British officers. Their long shots were effective but their deliberate targeting was nonetheless deplored by the British army, whose soldiers armed with muskets advanced in formation in full sight of the enemy.

George Washington was in two minds about the tactic. He expected his riflemen to “skulk” in the Indian manner but ordered that if any other kind of soldier “shall attempt to skulk, hide himself or retreat from the enemy without orders of his commanding officer, he will instantly be shot down as an example of cowardice.” By the mid-19th century American riflemen, whether hidden or not, were internationally famed as crack shots. As Alexander Rose, a military historian, shows in his rigorous account, this reputation had sound statistical support. An infantryman on the Unionist side in the American civil war (1861-65) was, on his reckoning, five times as good at hitting his foe as his Mexican, British or Continental European counterpart.

Yet this sharpshooting tradition has not always served America well. Mr Rose argues, counter-intuitively, that the pride the American military takes in marksmanship sometimes delays its acceptance of a more lethal new rifle which is (often wrongly) believed to be less accurate than existing ordnance. On the civilian side, the National Rifle Association, a mighty lobbyist, has the huntsman’s bias for precision over power. Similarly conservative, the United States Marine Corps has an almost mystical relationship with its rifles. In its “Rifleman’s Creed” a recruit swears before God to treat his rifle as his best friend, his brother and the saviour of his life.

This helps explain the Marines’ disinclination early on in the second world war to adopt the M1 Garand, a semi-automatic which for the first time in many years put America ahead of Britain, France and Germany, its traditional competitors in rifle development. The Marines only changed their minds after their beloved but antiquated Springfield M1903, a rifleman’s rifle, proved inadequate when they stormed beaches in the Pacific held by the Japanese.

Mr Rose includes detailed medical accounts of the damage done to pigs in test firings and to soldiers in battle. He is caustic about military euphemisms for horrific deaths. Even so, the overall tone of this “biography” of the rifle is nostalgic, heroic, almost celebratory. The very names of the rifles resonate with anybody brought up on westerns and war films: the Kentucky, forever associated with backwoodsmen like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone; the Winchester that tamed the wild west; even the contemporary Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR), although Mr Rose admits it lacks “the gorgeous lines” of the rival XM8. The best antidote to such romanticism is perhaps the rueful reflection of Robert E. Lee, a gallant Confederate general: “It is well that war is so terrible! We should grow too fond of it!”


PFC Horse
10-16-08, 09:02 PM
Nice article Drifter, thanks for passing it on. When on the island I qualified with the M14. A truly beautiful rifle that was great looking and very accurate, not hard to strip down and clean either. Loved that rifle, and qualified expert. I think it was the rifle and not me that qualified that week, shot expert all five days in a row. In Lejune we used the M16. I did not love that rifle as much as my first one, "we never forget our first love". Felt it was too light and not as accurate. We used to say it was built by Mattell because of all the plastic, while the M14 was all steel and wood.

10-17-08, 09:41 AM
Hi all,

Just to let you know, I'm actually the author of the book reviewed above. I happened to notice that thedrifter had (very kindly) posted it here to the forum and so I thought I'd check in. I don't know if the article made it entirely clear what's actually being reviewed. It's a book called AMERICAN RIFLE: A BIOGRAPHY and it's being published on October 21. You can take a look at it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/American-Rifle-Biography-Alexander-Rose/dp/0553805177/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211142365&sr=1-6

And for all you M14 fans out there, yes, there's a chapter on it. There are also sections on the Marines during WW2, the origins of the Rifleman's Creed, and the near-miss by gun designer Melvin Johnson -- a USMC man -- to have his rifle adopted instead of the Garand M1.

Lastly, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to get in touch. You can found out how, as well as more about the book, at my website http://www.alexrose.com